Monthly Archives: December 2014

Sound ‘Round: Playing catchup

NOTE: I’ve been terribly busy over the last several months and haven’t had the time to write my music reviews in the twice-a-week format I would prefer to run. Nonetheless, I wanted to catch up, so I put together this longer post featuring some of my favorite records from the last three months. 

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Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste (Prospect Park)

la-et-azealia-banksAn oft-delayed project due to disputes with now-former label Interscope, the only hint of this album’s brilliance came on the game-beating single, “212,” a showcase of the Bank’s unbeatable bravado. This Harlem wonderkid wants the world, and she damn well intends to have it. Until then, she’ll settle for your girlfriend, the proverbial hip-hop crown and enough ice and weed to open a cartel boutique. Aside from her welcome femme fatale aesthetic, a much-needed voice in a male-dominated genre, she’s notable for her multifaceted and fast-paced rhymes. One moment she’s bulletproof and proud, the next vulnerable and poetic. Each line is as quick-lipped and as visceral as the next. She reps for herself and ain’t ashamed who knows it. “My attitude is bitchy, but you already knew that,” she boasts. The music is every bit as bold: Sweaty funk meshes with seductive Tejano, avant jazz adds resonance to neo-house synths, and the vamped-up beats are as unrelenting as her penmanship. She’s so masterful and potent that the surf-pop shine of “Nude Beach A-Go-Go” comes off as a mere talent showcase until you realize it’s really a salute to black beauty. She kicks your ass from start to finish, and then you’ll ask for another. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: 212” / “Ice Princess” / “Gimme A Chance

Young Thug & Bloody Jay – Black Portland (self-released)

black portlandLeave your morality at the door. These two ATL oddballs adhere to a strict hedonist creed. To quote Young Thug: “You ain’t my thug / You ain’t my round / You ain’t my blunt / No love.” Jay doesn’t deviate from the script either: “Sex, money, murder / Nigga, that’s my game.” With rhymes that concern purple the drink, Bloods the gang and oral sex of the demeaning variety, it’s understandable to be apprehensive or outright dismissive on the first several rotations. But while it’s repulsive, tiring and monotonous, it’s also addictive, hilarious and melodic. Content to slur and mumble at will, they make sure the one-liners come in crystal clear. The best one belongs to Thug: “We ain’t Ku Klux Klan but this jet holds three K’s.” Ditto the choruses. I’m privy to Jay’s yelp of “I don’t give no fucks.” If you’re still sheepish, (again, understandable) simply tune out the lyrics and focus on the music. The beats are heavy and playful, the electronic bits are well-timed and catchy, and their ability to see life beyond the conventions of trap rap almost makes me want to accept their invite to “go play” on the finale, almost. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: No Fucks” / “4eva Bloody” / “Paranoia

Jason Derulo – Talk Dirty (Warner Bros.)

jason derulo - talk dirtyA shameless ass worshiper who finds love in a hopeless place, he transcends the sleazy myopia of club jams by being the nicest guy currently in the Top 40. His come-ons are pleasurable instead of perverted, and his ideal bedroom fantasy places her needs before his. But Derulo admires other qualities than just curves. To quote the man himself, “It ain’t about the booty but the brains, baby.” On the finale, he proves he’s more than bump-and-grind with a heart by delivering the best marriage anthem of his generation. So earnest and genial, it’s enough to make this ass man cry. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Marry Me” / “Trumpets” / Wiggle

Maddie & Tae – Maddie & Tae EP (Dot)

maddie and taeMaddie is from Texas, Tae is from Oklahoma. This four-song EP is the teenage duo’s major label debut and a silver bullet aimed at the heart of Nashville’s insipid bro culture. The opener is the song of the year, the follow-up a charming protest of feminine vanity. The closing track, however, cements their disdain for buffoonish men and warns them to “stay on (their) side of town” in a way that isn’t mere put-on. Miranda Lambert, meet your influence. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Girl in a Country Song” / “Stay on Your Side of Town” / “Sierra

Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class (Slate Creek)

angaleena presley - american middle classThe last Pistol Annie to venture solo, she counters Miranda Lambert’s platinum-studded salon with a rustic and charming set of songs concerned with the ills of Main Street. The list reads as such: pain pill addiction, towns built on meth instead of factories, rampant unemployment, the never-ending cycle of teen pregnancy, domestic apathy and the empty promise of religion. Her smoky drawl dishes out humor and heartache in equal measure, and the lyrics are as sharp as they come. But she saves the best line for her coal mining father who makes a cameo on the title track. He speaks of corporate suits living high off the broken backs of the workers they exploit, “It ain’t no life, really.” Amen.GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Grocery Store” / “Knocked Up” / “American Middle Class

Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems (Columbia)

leonard cohen - popular problemsHe sounded frail and resigned to death’s door on 2012’s Old Ideas. Two years later and entering his eighth decade, he’s suddenly reinvigorated. Though his eventual fate hovers on nearly every track, his grave-digger voice is resilient and steadfast as opposed to weepy and pliant. The subject matter is rightfully heavy, but the approach is never heavy-handed. What could have been an exercise in grim end-of-life nostalgia is instead a hymnal, and humorous, tribute to love both past and present. The angelic backup singers come off as tacky to some, but I suspect it’s a tongue-in-cheek move from the man who wrote, “Hallelujah.” GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Did I Ever Love You” / “You Got Me Singing” / “Almost Like the Blues

TV on the Radio – Seeds (Harvest)

tv on the radio - seedsTheir fifth album is their most conventional in terms of song arrangement. The sudden break from arthouse verse to giddy pop chorus has been curtailed in favor of a more straight-on approach. Blame the new methodology on age or the 2011 death of bassist Gerard Smith to lung cancer. That’s not to say these Brooklyn boys have grown complacent, however. The music still buzzes with a delightful sense of beauty. Synths shine, guitars glisten and Tunde Adebimpe’s understated vocals shape-shift so as to fill the empty spaces in between. They’re still going on about lost love, be it unrequited romance or deceased bandmates, but they sound wiser as opposed to whiny. Take this line from the title track as evidence: “Rain comes down like it always does / This time I’ve got seeds on ground.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Seeds” / “Ride” / “Happy Idiot

Taylor Swift – 1989 (Big Machine)

taylor swift - 1989She’s finally given us the full-fledged crossover we always knew was coming. That her transition to pop is so seamless is no surprise. Even her most country-centric jingles of yesteryear brim with hooks Katy Perry secretly covets. What’s a welcome revelation is her subtle lyrical maturity. Her prose no longer resembles the diary of a forlorn prom date as much as it does a dorm room Tumblr account. The only blemish here is the opening ode to the NYC, which works better as a symbolic farewell to Nashville than it does a good song. She should leave the city stories to P.J. Harvey. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Style” / “Bad Blood” / “Blank Space”

Todd Terje – It’s Album Time (Olsen)

This Norwegian producer keeps it cool on a studio debut full of Euro-lounge beats that are so utilitarian, even a fuddy-duddy like Erna Solberg could get down. In a world where the line between electronica, dubstep and EDM is increasingly blurred, this album is remarkable for its clarity and restraint. The hooks aren’t blasted at ear-crushing jock jam levels. Instead, every deceptively simple beat is given patience and room to stand on its own. From there, Terje adds in whatever he thinks will get you to shake your ass or wiggle your toes: sizzling hi-hat, warm keys, and bass that doesn’t need a lame-ass drop to justify its existence. This is how you do it, kids. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Delorean Dynamite” / “Leisure Suite Preben” / “Svenk Sas

Billy Joe Shraver – Long in the Tooth (Lightning Rod)

I’m intrigued with the idea of an outlaw who isn’t wanted anymore, less so than the ornery title track which renders him crotchety and bitter. In both instances, Shraver acts as a character. I prefer my long-standing songwriters to play it straight. He does just that on the song about circumstances humanity is incapable of changing – such as mortality and crooked politicians. Not all is salt and vinegar. His funny bone is still intact, and the love songs are warm, delicate and corny in an endearing way. It’s the best you could ask for from an old soul who only has love left to offer. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Hard to be an Outlaw” / “I’ll Love You as Much as I Can” / “Last Call for Alcohol”

Ex Hex – Rips (Merge)

In which Mary Timony resurrects the namesake of her solo career, she outfits it with a real band complete with real riffs and a real sense of immediacy. The guitar hooks often overshadow her plainspoken melodicism, but her brevity keeps the hooks coming at a steady pace. Musically, she’s reliant on rockabilly’s sway and punk’s three-chord charm. She showcases her pop savvy best when she attempts to have a little fun. Even the Beatles knew “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” could be a chorus in itself. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Radio On” / “Outro” / “You Fell Apart”

The Baseball Project – 3rd (Yep Roc)

A side project comprised of alt-rock careerists who wax poetic about America’s once-favorite pastime. Like the sport itself, this third release runs too long and is riddled with inactivity – Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron deserve better than mopey ballads. They hit things out of the park on the pop-rock burners, however. As someone who is clueless about baseball, I don’t know if Dale Murphy deserves to be in the Hall of Fame or not. But, with hooks like this, they make a hell of a case. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “They Are the Oakland A’s” / “To the Veterans Committee” / “From Nails to Thumbtacks”

Parkay Courts – Content Nausea (What’s Your Rupture?)

Their second album of 2014 finds them getting over their droning obsession with Lou Reed and rediscovering the wonders a drum kit can do for good songs. If there’s anything worse than college-aged ennui, it’s stagnant college-aged ennui. Here’s hoping they keep on keepin’ on. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Slide Machine” / “Pretty Machines” / “Uncast Shadow of Southern Myth”

Atmosphere – Southsiders (Rhymesayers Entertainment)

A nice-guy rapper from Minneapolis, Sean Daley is as bright-eyed as Macklemore with decidedly less cheese. Social statements are peppered among biographical rhymes regarding love and drugs. Lines like “Everybody’s trying to be the next to blow,” isn’t a snub at his peers, rather a great joke from a man on his seventh album and still doing what he’s always done. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “I Love You Like a Brother” / “Let Me Know That You Know What You Want Now”

Tokyo Police Club – Forcefield (Mom + Pop)

Tenured Toronto kids continue churning out brisk, immediate indie-pop that’s neither remarkable nor obnoxious. GRADE: B+
Key Tracks: “Hot Tonight” / “Miserable”

Skrillex – Recess (OWLSA)

Sonny Moore’s hook-friendly brand of EDM is as easy on the ears as his haircut is annoying. This debut full-length release, however, runs out of steam before it crosses the finish line. His dilemma doubles as his genre’s greatest pitfall: How can the thousandth bass drop sound as interesting as the first? GRADE: B+
Key Track:
“Recess” / “Coast is Clear” / “Stranger”